Some Pharisees … came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? … [Jesus] said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
Mark 12: 13-17.
It’s one of Jesus’s great take-down lines: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The Pharisees were trying to trap him, you see. They had set up a no-win scenario: If Jesus said to pay taxes, he’d be siding with the hated Romans, which was sure to cause his followers to abandon him. Tell them not to pay the tax, on the other hand, and he was guilty of sedition and rebellion, which was the fast track to crucifixion.
But Jesus knew what they were trying to do, and he had an answer ready. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Romans nearby were satisfied: they presumed Jesus meant material wealth belonged to the emperor, while more “spiritual” things were God’s realm.
The Pharisees and the rest of Jesus’s good Jewish followers would certainly have known that “the things that are God’s” is not limited to the spiritual: it means everything. God created the entire world, and everything in it. The gathered crowd would have known the words of Psalm 145:
The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand,
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.
They would also have remembered the words of Leviticus: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. “ And Genesis: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And many more verses like them.
The crowds listening that day knew all of creation belongs to God, including human beings, made in God’s very image. So when Jesus told the crowds to give to God the things that were God’s, they would have understood that meant all they had and all they were. Their first duty was to God, always.
When we talk about stewardship, it’s easy to find ourselves thinking about how much to give as the Romans might have: What do we owe God? Do we owe two percent of our income? Five percent? Ten percent? Before or after taxes? How much do we have to donate to be right with God?
But stewardship is not about paying a tax or even our “fair share.” It is about acknowledging that all we have and all we are belongs to God — our material wealth, our time, our talents and our very selves. We are not owners but stewards of these gifts, and our calling is not to give back a certain percent, but to reflect prayerfully and thoughtfully on how we use all that we have in partnership with God, to accomplish God’s will for the whole world.
It is surely God’s will that we should have enough to eat, and a safe place to live, that our children should prosper and we should enjoy the fruits of our labor and the good things of this life. The Bible is clear that prosperity is what God desires for God’s people.
Praise the Lord!Happy are those who fear the Lord,
who greatly delight in his commandments.
Their descendants will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
But the Bible is also clear that prosperity is not intended for us alone. The blessings God gives are intended to be shared, so that everyone can rejoice in them. God wants everyone to have enough to eat and a safe place to live and for everyone’s children to prosper. And for that to happen, we need to give some of what God has entrusted to our care to others, so that all may share in the blessings of our good and gracious God.
Stewardship, then, requires us to begin by counting our blessings, and offering thanks to God for all that we have. It then requires us to ask, “What of this can be shared with others, that they may know the goodness of God?” This means our material wealth, of course, but also our time and our talent. It means giving our whole selves to that partnership with God that is re-making the world.
Some of the things we do will be to care for ourselves, so that we can bring a whole and healthy self before God. We will pray, and eat healthy meals, and exercise. We will keep the sabbath, so that we are renewed and rested. We will devote ourselves to our work, so we can be proud of our labor and have fruitful relationships with co-workers.
Some of the things we do will be to care for our families: spending time together, nurturing and caring for children, grandchildren and aging parents, making sure their emotional and physical needs are met. We will save for our future and theirs and seek out wise advice so we can support ourselves in old age and provide for future generations.
Some of the things we will do will be to care for our communities and the wider world. We will give to charity and organizations that support those in need; we will volunteer our time for worthy organizations that are working to make a difference in the world; we will visit lonely neighbors, care for the sick, and help those in need; and we will participate in the political process, reminding our elected officials to act out of concern for the poor and vulnerable and in the interest of justice and peace.
And some of the things we will do will be to care for our church, because the church reminds us that all we are and all we have are God’s, and helps us find opportunities to serve, refreshment in worship and prayer, encouragement in study of the Scriptures, and a community of people who love and care for one another. I hope you will give generously, so that we can continue to offer the hospitality of our building, the beauty of our worship, and our service to the community. Our budget depends on the generous giving of our members: without it, we simply will not have the resources to continue doing the work God has given us, as a community of faith, to do.
But most of all, I hope you will find joy and delight in giving to God the things that are God’s — because in doing so we recognize that all of creation is enfolded in his love and care, and we know ourselves to be wholly God’s, beloved and chosen. We give generously not out of fear but out of gladness and thanksgiving, because we know the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
May you be blessed abundantly in this season of Thanksgiving.
Rev. Suzanne Wade
Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church